Authors: Charis Michaels
lisabeth, darling, is that you?”
The Countess of Banning called to her niece from a stone bench beneath a trellis of drooping roses. It was well past teatime, and Elisabeth had been working at the foundation since she'd left Rainsleigh's house that morning.
“Oh, hello.” Elisabeth tugged at the ribbon of her bonnet and lifted it off, spilling her hair free. “I did not see you there. No ball tonight?”
“Perhaps not,” Lilly said cryptically, beckoning her to the bench.
As a rule, Aunt Lillian attended a social engagement nearly every night of the week. It was rare to find her in the garden so late in the day. Elisabeth smiled at the unexpected surprise and tossed her bonnet on a stack of clay pots.
“Sorry to be away most of the day with no word,” she said. “And hello to you too, Quincy.” The large gardener winked from his spot behind the countess, pruning the climbing rose.
“We worked through luncheon,” Elisabeth went on, “and tea. Were youâ”
“Viscount Rainsleigh called today.”
Elisabeth froze on the path.
“Already?” Her voice came out on a choke. She'd passed the day reliving their encounter in her mind again and again, searching for some misinterpretation or vagueness. She'd found none, but then again, she was hardly an objective observer. Her plan had been to wait and see. She'd never dreamed the wait would be less than a day. “Why did he . . . call?” Even now, she would not allow herself to assume.
“He asked for my permission to call on you.”
?” Elisabeth repeated.
The countess nodded. “He seemed wholly determined, in fact. Single-minded, one might say. You knew?”
“Yes . . . yes, I suppose I did.” Elisabeth closed her eyes and raised a hand to her forehead. How, she wondered, had Bryson Courtland gone from a distant, pleasant memory that she conjured up only on occasion to a flesh-and-blood man who had called on her twice in one day? Who wanted to see her more?
“I wish for you,” he'd said.
His words had returned to her throughout the busy day. Her stomach had been a bittersweet swirl of hope and fear and disbelief.
“Darling,” began Lillian, “I have told him yes. I hope this is the correct answer.”
, Elisabeth thought sadly, sliding her hand into her hair and looking at the sky.
“I was remiss?” the countess guessed.
Elisabeth settled onto the bench beside her. “Remiss? Well, this is a reversal.
my opinion instead of arranging it on my behalf.”
“Do stop,” said the countess. “We saw your glow after dinner last night.”
“Oh yes. My
Lillian snapped a rose from the trellis, considered it, and then tucked it delicately behind her niece's ear. “A courtship is a far cry from a dinner. He would not leave without an answer, so I guessedâI
. But I've worried for hours that I have said the wrong thing.”
Elisabeth nodded. Her aunt was capable of some measure of restraint, but it took effort. Perhaps Elisabeth's protestations before the dinner had had some impact after all. If so, it was a huge concession, because Lillian wanted this so badly, and she'd been given no tangible reason why it could not be. But perhaps this was Elisabeth's fault. She had held the details of the abduction and rescue so very close.
Lillian went on, “The dinner was only meant to be an opportunity for you to meet himâor meet him
Once and for all. If you've discovered that you have no attraction to the man, well, that is not my doing.”
Elisabeth looked away. “Attraction is not the problem, unfortunately. How easy that would make things. Under different circumstances, I would be open to a courtship. But all things considered? I cannot.”
“All things considered?” Lillian waited.
Elisabeth sighed, stretching her back and patting her hands on her knees. “Obviously, a courtship would jeopardize my bid for his charity donation. I need that money, Lillian. I've poured all but a fraction of the entitlement left by Father's death into the foundation. We are surviving, but his donation would do a world of good.”
,” said Lillian. “I'll pay for the charity prize myself. This obstacle is not significant. You only heard of the prize yesterday. Next.”
,” Elisabeth continued, rolling her eyes, “if he remembers who I am, then any future we may have will be doomed.”
“Doomed, is it? And why is that?”
Elisabeth hesitated only a second. It was time. “Because,” she said, looking over to her aunt, “if he remembers, he will be inclined to think I am, erâwas, a whore.”
Lillian barely managed to stifle a gasp. Behind them, Quincy's discreet footsteps padded away. She whispered, “You exaggerate the circumstances, Elisabeth. Why would he be inclined to think that?”
Elisabeth shook her head. “It's been so long since we've discussed the abduction, you and I.” She turned and watched Quincy disappear into his potting shed. “Your respect for my privacy has been a necessary, cherished thingâessential to my healing. But I have not kept silent because I misremember. I know exactly what happened. He will, too, I'm sureâif he would but recall the circumstances.”
“He discovered you in the dreadful brothel after the attack,” recited Lillianâit was the only part of the harrowing night she really knew, “and he took you out and brought you across London. He brought you here to me. Well, not him, personally, as you showed up on my doorstep alone. But you said it was he, Elisabeth, who rescued you that night.”
Elisabeth squeezed her eyes shut. “Yes, but I wasn't simply sitting on the hitching post waiting to be delivered. It was a brothel, Aunt Lillian. You've seen the scar on my shoulder. For all practical purposes, I was being indoctrinated among the working girls there.”
Lillian fell silent for a moment, studying Elisabeth's face. She shook her head as if she would not allow the story to go on. She reached out and placed her hand on top of Elisabeth's.
“I was in a bedroom when they brought him in,” Elisabeth said. “Waiting for himâor dreading him, more like. What else was he to think?”
“A bedroom? But was he there as a customer, Elisabeth? I thought . . . I thought . . . ”
Elisabeth shrugged. “He'd been dragged to the brothel by his fatherâhe said as much. I said nothing at all, but he saw my shoulder, saw me dressed in rags. I was wretched, pathetic. The only thing propping me up was my will to survive.” She looked away. “And
is why I did not want to sit with him at dinner last night. And
is why I cannot allow him to court me now. I am terrified that he will recognize meâor, more so, that he will
recognize me, and that I will be forced to remind him of the whole terrible ordeal.”
Tears burned the corners of her eyes, and she squeezed them shut. “If he and I are . . . connected, the truth will eventually come out.”
Lillian nodded slowly, reaching over and taking Elisabeth's hands in her own. “Forgive me as I muddle through.” A tear slid down Elisabeth's cheek, and her aunt reached up to wipe it away. The tender gesture only brought on more tears. Elisabeth looked at the sky.
Lillian asked softly, “But would this be such a terrible thing? The truth? You were
, in fact, a . . .
. It would be difficult to tell him, but he seems like a fair and decent man. You would survive it, if he knew. You both would survive this truth.”
“Aunt Lilly,” she whispered, her voice breaking, “you are like a mother to me, and I have not even survived telling
Lillian squeezed her hands. “Perhaps if you began with me then?”
“Perhaps you are right.”
Lillian's head shot up. “What? Elisabeth,
“No,” she insisted, “it is time.” She wiped her eyes. She glanced at Lillian and chuckled through her tears. “Don't look so grave. I have owed you this.”
When Elisabeth spoke, it was in the low, flat tones of forced detachment. She faced the open garden. She churned through the memories, angling to be specific but brief. “I'll start at the beginning. You know some of this. I was in the carriage with Mama and Papa when we were attacked. The highwaymen shot the servants firstâdriver, grooms, Mama's maid. Papa was next. Mama screamed and screamed. I honestly think they would have spared her (as they spared me) if she had not caused such a ruckus. But her husband was shot before her eyes. She was hysterical. They shot her to put a stop to her carrying on, and that left only me.”
“Did they strike you, Elisabeth? Did they . . . ”
Elisabeth took a deep breath. “Three of them wanted to . . . assault me there, on the side of the road, but the leader called them off. He told them he knew of a place that they could . . . âsell' me for a high price. But the money hinged on my being delivered untouched. This was the brothel.”
Lillian nodded slowly. Her grip was so tight; Elisabeth wiggled to give them both some relief.
“They argued about this,” Elisabeth said, “shouting back and forth as they searched our belongings. Ultimately, thank God, the leader won out, and they consented to let me be.
“They bound me instead, threw me over the back of a horse, and we rode through the night until we reached this certain brothelâthe Bronze Root.” Absently, she grabbed hold of the shoulder that bore the branded letters B and R. “At the time, I had no idea that such a place existed.” Elisabeth took a deep breath before going on. “After the excruciating ride in an impossible position across the horse's rump, I was barely able to stand. I retched for five minutes. I wanted to die. I
they would kill me, as they had Mama and Papa. Meanwhile, they sold me, just like that, for ten pounds sterling. They held me down, and the owner branded my shoulder”âshe reached for the scar againâ“and I was thrown in among the owner's stable of very unhappy, very unfriendly prostitutes. I was told to make peace with my new life, because no one from the outside world would ever find me. I would be working âon my back,' in a manner of speaking, as soon as they could lure a customer willing to pay the very high price they placed on meâa young, unspoiled, well-tended virgin.” She ended this last on a whisper.
Tears rolled down Lillian's cheeks. She dropped the girl's hands and wrapped her arms around her. Elisabeth leaned into the hug, more to comfort her aunt than herself. Despite the years of silence and reckoning, this recounting of the tragedy affected Elisabeth less than she thought it would.
“After that,” Elisabeth went on, “there were beatings, gropings, generalized . . . terror.”
Lillian cut in. “But dearest, were you . . . ” She let the sentence trail off, clearly unable to say the words. “The doctor I hired to treat you would not tell me, you know. He saw you for weeks, and he refused to ever say.”
Elisabeth stared into her lap. She took three deep breaths. She had not thought about this detail in years. “I fought the doctor every time he endeavored to examine me. He didn't tell you because he did not know.” She looked up. “Honestly, Aunt Lillian? Even I cannot say.” She shook her head. Now the tears did come, closing her throat.
Lillian ventured a guess. “Because you were unconscious?”
“Because I was too young and naive to understand.” She breathed in, trying to talk through her tears. “I was only fifteen years old and incredibly naive. The entire ordeal was a horrifying immersion in . . . depravity and violence. Mama had only explained to me in the vaguest terms what happens between a man and a woman. To me, one violation bled into the nextâall of them were terrifying.”
She went on, speaking briskly. “For all practical purposes, it is fair to say that I was . . . disgraced. The first night, I was left alone to recover from the branding and my general hysteria. But the next day, two prospective customers arrived. A âsampling,' it was called. My clothes were taken from me, and I was presented to them naked. The owner and these men closed in and touched, and patted, and pinched.”
Lillian, now crying too, muttered a desperate curse.
“So much value had been placed on my virginityâdid they go so far as to finish the task?” Elisabeth drew her hand to her mouth and covered her trembling lips. Lillian pulled her so tightly to her side that she was nearly in her lap.
Finally, she lifted her head. Her voice was a whisper. “Was I raped by these three men? I cannot say. Their hands were everywhere. Perhaps? I . . . I
.” She shook her hair back. “What could this specific detail matter when I was subjected to all the rest? I can never claim innocence or purity after that night. Never. I can never entertain the advances of a respectable gentleman after that night.”
,” said Lillian. “You were a victim, a childâ”
“But don't you see?” she demanded tearfully, shoving up. “It doesn't really matter whether they did or they did not. You took me in, healed me, and gave me a safe and happy new home. Because of this, I have made my own way and built a rich, fulfilling life. On my own terms. In this life, neither innocence nor purity is a requirement. The same cannot be said for the life of the future wife of Viscount Rainsleigh, whoever she may be. For her, purity will be central. It will be essential.”
She reached out and snapped a rose from the trellis. “And now you see why the viscount troubles me so. If anyone deserves an innocent girl, after the boyhood he suffered, it is he. And
is why I cannot entertain the idea of a courtship.” She dropped back on the bench. “It's far too reckless, I worry, even to compete for the charity prize. If I was prudent, I would stay entirely away.”